More eBooks…..

As promised, I thought I would share the results of my recent (entirely unscientific) ebook poll.  Much as I expected, the cost of the technology (both for the readers and the ebooks themselves) was the primary concern of many who voted.  In total, around 40% of the votes cast reflected the need for cheaper ebooks and cheaper readers. Range was also a factor with 15% of votes counted suggesting that the limited range of titles at present is a hindrance to making the move to the electronic format.  A further factor was DRM (Digital Rights Management) with 13% of votes cast indicating that the removal of DRM would be desirable.   However, it was encouraging to note that only six votes flatly refused to even contemplate the idea of ebooks – although given that this poll was primarily circulated via Twitter, one has to consider the type of person who was partaking (generally tech-savvy types who would likely give serious thought to purchasing an eReader).  Consequently, it is impossible to extrapolate these results across the general population (which makes you wonder why I bothered in the first place!), but it is fair to say that there is a high degree of interest in ebooks and certainly the poll suggests that a number of people could be persuaded to buy an eReader if the price is right.  The interest is there, it is up to publishers and manufacturers to meet the demands of the consumers.

Ebooks, audiobooks and VAT

One of the factors keeping both ebooks and audiobooks high in price is the application of VAT at the full 15% rate.  Printed books have been zero rated for VAT for sometime now and it is about time that a reduction in VAT was also applied to audiobooks and ebooks.  Given that both formats have huge advantages for those who suffer from visual impairments, it seems hugely unfair that they should be penalised in this way.  The EU has already voted to reduce VAT on these items, but it is entirely optional as to whether member states apply this ruling.  In order to give the government a gentle nudge, there is currently a petition running at the No10 website urging a reduction on VAT on these items.  At present there are only 21 signatures and there needs to be over 200 for there to be an official government response, so there is some way to go to reach the target.  The petition closes on 20th November so that doesn’t give a lot of time.  I would urge people to Tweet about this poll, spread the word and get as many people as possible to sign the petition.  These technologies can be of great benefit to those who would otherwise be excluded, so I would urge everyone to support a reduction in VAT on them.

Facebook Group

Finally, I have set up an ebook Reader group on Facebook to share experiences with ebooks in whatever format they come in (including on the iPhone).  If you are interested/curious/sceptical about ebooks, feel free to join the group and share your thoughts.  With the imminent release of the Kindle over here, ebooks are going to get bigger and bigger and there will be much to ponder in terms of how their growth will affect libraries and retailers in the future.

The New Kindle

As you may be aware by now, Amazon have announced that their Kindle ebook reader will now be available in 100 countries across the globe.  Couple this announcement with Sony’s recently released readers and things are getting very interesting in the ebook world.  Of course the Kindle news isn’t without a downside.  It will only be available to UK users through the US website at a cost of £200 once import duties are taken into account.  Sadly, affordable ereaders are still a pipe dream at the moment.

That said, it is still exciting news.  With the imminent UK release of the Kindle we will see some much needed competition in the ebook market over here.  Sony has been by far and away the market leader, holding a fairly dominant position in the market for sometime.  The release of the Kindle could, however, lead to a price war with the cost of the hardware decreasing and the appeal of owning a machine increasing.  An added benefit may well be an improvement on the retailing side of ebooks.  The current offering is still pretty poor with prices still not markedly different from paper copies.  A new name on the market (and a leader in the largest ebook market – the US), could kickstart a revolution in the retailing of ebooks and make for a fare better customer experience (I get rather frustrated with the current offerings, Waterstone’s in particular has a poor site), as well as reduced prices for ebooks.

I remain optimistic about the future of ebooks and, when getting people’s views on ebooks, I sense that there is a lot of interest in them once a number of problems have been resolved.  I believe that they will really start to take-off once Amazon fully enters the market here.  For that reason, I think it is essential for public libraries to get onboard (in a considered way of course) as soon as is feasible.  How great would it be for users to be able to ‘borrow’ your books and take them on holiday with them without physically taking the book?  Borrowers wouldn’t have to worry about either losing their book while they are away or the baggage allowance (although admittedly losing the reader would be a major worry – although not for the library as the books will not be lost!).  As for the ability to alter the size of the font, the advantages for those that rely on large print books are obvious.

In response to the growing media interest in ebooks, I have set up a twtpoll to see what would convince people to invest in an ereader.  The poll closes on Sunday and I will post the results at the beginning of next week.

Ebooks – Is A Breakthrough Near?

With the press coverage that has accompanied the release of the latest Dan Brown ‘novel’ (I’m not a fan!), I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to look once more at ebooks and share a few thoughts of my own experiences, as well as what I think publishers need to do to ensure the success of the format.

It has been nine months now since I first got my hands on my Sony Reader.  Although I have always read a great deal, I am not particularly precious about hard/paperbacks.  The thing that has always been of primary concern to myself is the actual content.  Now, some may say that there is nothing like the smell and feel of owning a book, and that may well be true for them but I don’t buy books for smell and appearance, I buy books because the content interests me.  That’s not to say that the opposing view lacks legitimacy, it’s all about personal preference.  At this point I feel I should re-iterate my position on ebooks and their place in the publishing world.

In my view, ebooks are simply an alternative format for the delivery of text.  They will not replace paperbacks or hardbacks anymore than audio books have displaced paper copies.   My attitude to ebooks is much the same as it is to MP3s.  Some bands I set out to purchase hard copies of everything they release (in my case everything by Pearl Jam or Radiohead).  Some other bands I will mainly buy hard copies, but the odd EP/single I will download (for example, I own all Bloc Party’s albums, but I only have digital copies of their EPs), whereas some others I will simply buy the digital download and that is all.  For me, this is the same with ebooks.  Should it be a book by Bret Easton Ellis, I will purchase a hard copy without hesitation.  If it is an author I am less interested in, I will simply download a copy of the text (I have recently downloaded Slaughterhouse 5 having never read a Vonnegut before).  To me, it is not a case of either/or, there is much more to it than that.

Anyway, I digress.  I have been very happy with my Reader since I received it as a gift.  I find it exceptionally easy to read from the screen and although there is a slight delay when turning pages, it has become barely noticeable with time.  I like the way that I can carry a whole library of books around with me and dip in and out of any of them at any moment (aided by the fact that you can have multiple bookmarks on as many books as you like).  I like the fact that I can organise them into collections (such as ‘non-fiction’, ‘fiction’ and ‘classics’ – you can categorise however you see fit) just like I was carrying my own personal library.  One of the biggest benefits, however, has been when travelling.  On my last trip to Spain I had read all the books that I had taken with me, leaving me nothing to read on the flight home.  However, instead of rushing to the nearest bookshop and hunting down an English language text (both hard to find and ridiculously expensive), I visited the WHSmiths ebook store, found an appropriate title and downloaded it, all in a matter of minutes.  Thus I ensured that I didn’t have to endure the flight home without something to read.  Overall, my experiences with my Reader over the past 9 months have been very positive and it has become one of my best loved gadgets.

Despite my attachment to my Reader, there are a great many people out there who are very sceptical about ebooks.  A recent poll in The Guardian suggested 77% of people would not consider using an ebook reader (although the poll itself is flawed as it uses the common either/or dichotomy which is not appropriate as I have already indicated).  The comments that follow certainly seem to support this viewpoint (although they are perhaps misled by the false dichotomy of the poll in question).  Whilst a number of comments relate to the physicality of books and an emotional attachment, there are a number of valid comments from people regarding the format itself.

Although the potential for ebooks is great, there are still a number of factors that need to be addressed for the sceptics to be won over and for ebooks to become a popular alternative:

  1. Reduce the price of ebooks and readers – The cost of ebooks is still far too high compared to paper copies.  When you also factor in the cost of the equipment needed to read ebooks, it is clearly an expensive option.  A case in point: Dan Brown’s heavily promoted novel is retailing for £13.29 in ebook format and the hardback is available for £4.99 at Amazon.
  2. Publish more ebooks – Although more and more ebooks are coming onto the market all the time (and perhaps more will after the release of Dan Brown’s latest), there is still not enough choice to warrant the purchase of a reader.  Even now, it is quite a rare thing for me to find something that I really want to read in ebook format.
  3. Support one format –  The best way for ebooks to succeed is for one solitary format to be the preferred method of delivery.  Amazon are still promoting their format over all others for obvious reasons.  EPUB would be the preferable option (in fact that format is pretty much accepted as standard now so one wonders how Amazon intend on proceeding with their format).
  4. Address DRM – Digital Rights Management is still a concern.  Whilst some ebooks have been relaxed regarding DRM (Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science allows 35 copies every 7 days) others off no such relaxation.  If ebooks were to take off, the DRM issue needs to be seriously considered and addressed, particularly with the associated danger of losing your entire collection.
  5. Improved retailing – At present, ebook retailing in the UK is pretty poor at best.  There is a very limited choice of retailers (at present you can only purchase through Waterstone’s, WHSmiths and Borders) and the actual purchasing experience through any of these retailers is pretty poor (the fact that WHSmiths of all places is the best tells you all you need to know about the state of ebook retailing in the UK).  There needs to be a dedicated UK based ebook retailer who can provide a much better purchasing experience).

Although addressing these issues would not necessarily ensure a bright future for ebooks on their own, they would remove some of the doubts in people’s minds about the rationality of purchasing an ebook reader.  If these issues are not addressed, ebooks are in danger of becoming very much a niche product that will never break into the mainstream, no matter how hard manufacturers try to appeal to the iPod generation.

New Sony Reader?

A member of the MobileRead forum has posted some information on the rumoured next generation Sony Reader. The poster quoted a source on the Sony Insider forum who claimed to have discovered two service manuals for the supposed new Readers.  According to this source the models are called the PRS-300 and the PRS-600:

The Sony Reader PRS300

The Sony Reader PRS300

PRS-300: 5″ screen, no touch screen, no audio output, no card slots, ~440MB user partition, 220g.

The Sony Reader PRS-600

The Sony Reader PRS-600

PRS-600: 6″ screen, touch screen, audio output, SD/MS slots, ~380MB user partition, 286g.

As with the PRS-505, it is rumoured that these models do not have a wireless connection or built in light.  Personally I do not find that too much of a problem, especially in light of the Kindle/Orwell debacle.  As the Sony Reader is the market leader in the UK at the moment, wireless probably isn’t a major concern.  Should the Kindle make it to Europe however, it could be a very different story.

Update

Engadget has more details on these models:

If said sheets are to be believed, the 5-inch (800 x 600 resolution) Sony PRS300-RC Reader Pocket Edition will ship with 512MB of onboard memory, PC and Mac support, a battery good for 7,500 page turns and USB 2.0 connectivity. The 6-inch (800 x 600 resolution) PRS600-SC Reader Touch Edition checks in at 0.4-inches thin and boasts a virtual keyboard, doodle capability, 512MB of storage, a built-in English e-dictionary, PC and Mac support and the same battery as on the smaller sibling.

International Digital Publishing Forum – Digital Book 2009 Event

For the past two days, the IDPF have been holding a conference entitled ‘Digital Book 2009′ in New York.  As you would expect, the event has been accompanied by some live tweeting from the conference itself….and some interesting tweets they were too.  Amongst some of the more interesting tweets is news that Sony are working on a wireless reading device.  This could be a very interesting development, particularly considering the delay in the release of the Kindle over here (we haven’t even got v1.0 and the US media is already talking about v3.0!!).  Should Sony get this out quick, it will pretty much own a sizeable chunk of the UK market and make it very difficult for Amazon’s Kindle to compete.

Another interesting revelation was the impact that ebooks have had in public libraries.  A representative from Brooklyn public library has revealed that ebooks have overtaken audio books in terms of issues.  This underlines that despite the common view that ebooks are a threat and not an opportunity, ebooks in libraries have proved to be a popular alternative to other formats.  It certainly doesn’t appear to suggest that ebooks will be the library killer that some people would lead you to believe.

There have been many other interesting developments (like Acrobat export from PDF to the EPUB format) and there are sure to be more to come.  Meanwhile, you can follow the event itself via the Twitter hashtag #idpf09 either on Twitter itself or on the quite wonderful Twitterfall.

Ebooks – It’s All Going On…..

There have been a few interesting developments of late regarding ebooks.  Firstly, there was the announcement by Faber that they would be publishing an ebook that would work on the same principle as Radiohead’s In Rainbows.  The book, entitled What Price Freedom?, will be available for download six weeks prior to the publication of the paper edition and will give readers….

…..the freedom to set their own price, or even download it for free.

Whilst this offer differs slightly from that offered by Radiohead (the download was compressed so there was still a reason to then go on to purchase the ‘hard copy’), it is an interesting development and certainly worth keeping an eye on come the release date.  Although one wonders whether this model will ultimately succeed as there is no actual incentive to own the hard copy, other than for presentation value.

Sony and Google Make Ebook Agreement

Exciting though that news was, today came some even more exciting news.  Google and Sony have announced an agreement that will see all of Google‘s scanned public-domain books available to read on the Sony Reader.  This means that Sony Reader owners will now have access to a further 500,000 books – free of charge¹.  The following is taken from Yahoo! News:

NEW YORK – Google Inc. is making half a million books, unprotected by copyright, available for free on Sony Corp.‘s electronic book-reading device, the companies were set to announce Thursday.

It’s the first time Google has made its vast trove of scanned public-domain books available to an e-book device, and vaults the Sony Reader past Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle as the device with the largest available library, at about 600,000 books.

The scanned books were all published before 1923, and include works like Charles Dickens‘ “A Tale of Two Cities” as well as nonfiction classics like Herodotus‘ “The Histories.”

The books are already available as free downloads in the Portable Document Format (PDF), which works well on computer screens but not on e-book readers. Google will provide the books to the Sony Reader in the EPUB (electronic publication) format, which lets the lines flow differently to fit a smaller screen.

Google spokeswoman Jennie Johnson said the company wants to make the books available as widely as possible.

“Really our vision is: any book, anywhere, any time and on any device,” she said. “We want to partner with anybody who shares our vision of making them more accessible.”

This is really quite an exciting development and really ensures the Reader is a viable alternative to Amazon’s Kindle, particularly as the Kindle relies on books produced in Amazon’s proprietary format (AZW).  Although EPUB formatted ebooks can be converted using special software to enable them to be read on a Kindle, it is a big advantage point for the Sony.  It is especially advantageous given that the Kindle is currently unavailable in Europe and unlikely to be available for sometime due to its reliance on Whispernet,   which is not currently compatible across the region.  At this rate, Europe is going to be a tough nut for Amazon to crack, particularly given the widespread adoption of EPUB as the format of choice for ebooks.

These really are exciting times for the ebook.  As predicted, the format is really moving at quite a pace in 2009 and there is no telling where the format will be come December.  Maybe, just maybe, widespread adoption of ebooks is just around the corner.

1. You can download the software to enable access to Google’s public domain books here.

E-books Competitively Priced?

One of the problems with the provision of ebooks at the moment has been the perception that they are not significantly cheaper than old fashioned paper books.  For ebooks to really take off, there needs to be a significant price differential to encourage people to ditch the paper and take up e-readers.  Curious to find out the actual price difference, I took a sample of 40 books and compared prices between electronic and paper versions.  For the electronic versions, I took the prices from the WHSmiths ebook website (in my experience they have been very reasonably priced) and for the paper versions I used Amazon.  Whenever there was a hardback and paperback version on Amazon, I used the paperback as the comparison.  I also ensured that the same edition was compared to ensure parity between the formats and I used the EPUB standard for ebooks.  A wide variety of texts were compared.  Old and new.  Ficiton and non-fiction. So what did I discover?

Well, overall there was a slight difference in price that was favorable to ebooks.  Overall, the paperbacks totalled £296.74 and ebooks totalled £291.30 – a total saving of £5.44.  Out of forty texts, eleven titles were cheaper in paper format than electronic (27%).  The biggest price difference in favour of paper books was £4.85 (where the ebook copy was £12.76 and the paper version was £7.91).  The biggest difference in favour of electronic books was £1.75 (ebook: £5.24; paper: £6.99).  Overall, the e-books selected were generally under a pound cheaper than the paperbacks.  A very minor saving between the two formats.  In fact, taking the price difference between the formats, ebooks were on average only 13.6p cheaper (total saving ÷ 40).

Clearly pricing needs to significantly improve for ebooks to really take off.  There is a slight saving overall from the purchase of ebooks, but it is very slight at best.  We are certainly not seeing the kind of price differentials that developed with the emergence of mp3s – not yet anyway.  When one paper book edition is selling for nearly £5 cheaper than its electronic equivalent, there is clearly something wrong.  For ebooks to really take off, the price difference should be consistently and significantly cheaper than their paper counterparts.  Until that happens, ebooks will remain on the fringes of the publishing world.  Should this change however, ebooks could really fulfil their potential and breakthrough into the mainstream.